RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A third of a million Latinas will turn 15 this year. For many of them that means a big bash. The quinceanera is celebrated across Latin America and the United States. It's a rite of passage, and a growing industry in the U.S. The average quinceanera gown will set a girl in her family back several hundred dollars.
Novelist Julia Alvarez has written a lot about what it means to come to this country, something she did at 10 years old and her family fled the Dominican Republic. She's known for the novel "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents." And in her first nonfiction book, she takes on the cultural celebration she missed as an adolescent. The book is called "Once Upon a Quinceanera."
Ms. JULIA ALVAREZ (Author, "Once Upon a Quinceanera"): It's the big party for the young Latina girl. It marks her transition from girl to woman. It's very ritualized and elaborate, lots of money is spent, sometimes more than for a wedding. I remember even - I didn't have quinceanera, but I remember when I was a young girl that I would be told that (Spanish spoken), on your 15th, after your 15th, you can do that. After your 15th, you can wear dangly earrings. After your 15th, you can shave your legs. Fifteen, for some reason, is the marker age for the Latina girl.
MONTAGNE: There are several traditions within the quinceanera party, or I guess it's called the quinceanera, the actual event and the girl herself. But there are several things that have to be there. What are they? What has to happen?
Ms. ALVAREZ: The traditional USA quinceanera usually starts with a mass, a court of 14 couples representing the first 14 years of the young girl's life. Her shoes are changed in the ceremony - by her father usually - change the shoes from flats to heels. The mother, father, madrina crowns her with a tiara. She usually does this wonderful choreographed number with her court.
She does the 15 candles, which is borrowed, actually, from the bar and bat mitzvah, the 13 candles, 15 candles. So it's a very elaborate, ritualized ceremony. And oh, yes (unintelligible).
MONTAGNE: And the dress.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ALVAREZ: The dress is huge. The dress is a big, huge dress. It's got this tight, snug bodice. But then it's got this big sort of chastity belt, ballooning skirt all around you. Very hard to get into anything but a big, huge limo, which also is becoming de rigueur.
The other thing I was going to mention, the girl is usually given a last doll by her madrina, by her godmother. Many quinceaneras will throw the doll to a group of screaming little girls, who are all going to have quinces in the future, just the way a bride would throw her bouquet at her bridesmaids.
MONTAGNE: You know, one of the intriguing things, and quite sweet, was how, at least in the Mexican tradition, there are godmothers and godfathers who, for all intents and purposes, throw the party.
Ms. ALVAREZ: (Unintelligible)
MONTAGNE: And I love this - the godfather of the limo.
Ms. ALVAREZ: And the godfather of the deejay, and the madrina, the godmother of the cake, and the madrina of the tiara. They're all helping throw the quinceanera her party. And not only, you know, not only is that literally but I think symbolically it's saying to this young girl we are all invested and you're becoming this powerful, talented, successful Latina woman. And I think that's not lost on a young girl.
MONTAGNE: You know, here is another side of it. There was a movie out last year called "Quinceanera," and in this movie, the plot turned on the discovery by the girl, the quinceanera, that she was pregnant. It speaks to some of the tensions within this in terms of the girls going through this at a young age and yet have these other possible problems or life-changing experiences that don't have anything to do with being a princess.
Ms. ALVAREZ: Exactly. What hooked me wasn't necessarily just the tradition and its elaborations within the United States and all of that, which are intriguing. But the fact that when you look at the statistics, 51 percent of Hispanic girls have babies before turning 20 - the highest pregnancy rate, one of the highest dropout rates. You know, suicide attempt, the highest rate of all young people in America. So you have this amazing fantasy of the girl, a princess, a court, and where she's headed in the statistics is really dire. And is the tradition really taking care of our young girls if that's where they're heading?
And anecdotally, there's an events planner in Colorado who did seven quinceaneras in 2005 and then was joking or whatever that the next year, by next year, four of those quinceaneras have invited him to their baby shower.
MONTAGNE: When you went to the different girls whose quinceaneras you followed, you asked them all, what does it mean to you? And, basically, these girls didn't always have a good answer for what the quinceanera meant to them.
Ms. ALVAREZ: Well, you know, I'd always get sort of the pat answer. Well, I'm going from being a girl to being a woman. And then if you press them a little more, they'd say, well, it's like part of my culture. And it was curious to me because a lot of these girls in so many other ways were very, very American, mainstream girls. Some of them didn't even know Spanish, but in this one tradition they really wanted to claim their culture and roots.
But what I discovered was that something else happens to these young girls in the process of planning this party. It's three to six months. They're spending time with their mothers, their aunts, the women in their family. All these kids, 28 kids of the 14 couples and the girl's escort, they're downstairs in the basement practicing waltz steps just at a point where parents are worrying about their teens on the streets and what they're doing. You're learning about your traditions. I think those aspects are really empowering.
I mean, when that girl comes out and makes her entrance, and that whole room gets up and mommy takes her by the hand and walks her around the room showing this beautiful, young, new arrival in the field of time, I always grab for a Kleenex even if I didn't know the girl. There's something very tender and powerful. The whole community is standing up and saying to this young girl we're here for you. We want to celebrate you and support you.
MONTAGNE: Julia Alvarez, thanks very much for talking with us.
Ms. ALVAREZ: Thank you for having me.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Julia Alvarez wrote "Once Upon A Quinceanera." And here's a song you're likely to hear at the party.
(Soundbite of song "De Nina a Mujer")
Mr. JULIO IGLESIAS (Singer): (Singing) (Spanish spoken)
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.